Edna and Charlotte arrive at Furnace Creek Ranch and learn how difficult it is to simply exist on the hot floor of Death Valley.
This episode was recorded and produced by Lisa McNamara. Supplemental text is by Lisa McNamara and original text is by Edna Brush Perkins. Music by Nesrality and Lesfm, and sound effect by SSPsurvival, all from Pixabay.
This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.
This is chapter six of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins, or EBP. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!
Chapter 6 – The Strangest Farm in the World
On the fourth day we bade “Old Johnnie” farewell, and descended into the quivering white basin. The next camp was to be at Furnace Creek Ranch, the irrigated farm in the bottom of the valley established long ago in connection with the original borax-works of the Twenty-Mule-Team brand. (LM: This is now a resort area complete with a hotel, spring-fed swimming pool, a restaurant and bar, general store, a golf course, a gas station, multiple campgrounds, an airport, and a visitor center – it’s like the hub of Death Valley.) The water for irrigation is brought down in a ditch from Furnace Creek in the canyon between the Funeral Mountains and the Black Mountains and the ranch is a large, green patch on the sand. In any ordinary place, or in any ordinary light it would be a conspicuous feature of the landscape; but, though “Old Johnnie” had pointed it out so carefully, we could never distinguish it nor could we see it during our approach that day until we were within half a mile of it. Throughout the journey the valley-floor presented the same unbroken, white expanse.
For several miles our way continued down the mesa. Here was no road, only a lurching and grinding down a rocky wash, crawling over the edge in the hope of something better and returning again to the ills we knew. It seemed as though the slender-spoked wheels must collapse under the strain. Our tower of baggage swayed dangerously. The Official Worrier was a skillful driver and he needed to be, not only on this day but on several subsequent ones which surpassed it. About noon we reached the road that leads from Salt Creek at the southern end of Mesquite Valley across the northern end of Death Valley and along its eastern side to the ranch. This road was an improvement on the uncharted wash. There were no rocks in it; but it soon became sandy, two deep ruts meandering off toward the white floor.
Presently we came to its edge and skirted the swamp of the Armagosa (LM: Amargosa) River, the morass of mud and quicksands which fills the whole bottom of the valley, an immense expanse covered with large white crystals and a powdery substance that looks like coarse salt. The valley probably was once the bed of a salt-lake whose slow evaporation left the thick alkali crust. The ruts were very deep and the ground soft to walk on, spongy and hummocky. The Worrier said that if the wagon were to get out of the ruts it easily might be mired. “Old Johnnie” told us that in some places in the middle of the bog a team or a man walking could be sucked down out of sight and one of his tales was of finding a dead man’s face looking up at him out of the ground.
“He was a Swede with yellow hair,” he said, “and he stared at the sun. He sank standing up.” (LM: this mental image has provided fuel for many nightmares for me.)
The road which crosses the valley below the ranch near the Old Eagle Borax Works is said to be almost the only way to get over the swamp. The Panamint Indians (LM: Timbisha Shoshone Tribe) are supposed to have known this route and to have crossed the valley to escape from their enemies, who dared not follow them.
(LM: A side note about the Old Eagle Borax Works: this was the first borax mine in Death Valley, discovered in 1880, the same year Edna was born. This is a wild story – in 1880, a man named Isidore Daunet, a French immigrant, and several others tried to cross Death Valley in the summer and became stranded. Daunet and a companion went for help, and upon returning, found three of those they left behind dead from dehydration. Daunet saved himself from the same fate by killing one of his animals and drinking its blood. On this doomed adventure, Daunet still managed to have the presence of mind to notice deposits of borax in Death Valley, stake a claim, and come back later.)
A Government bench-mark by the roadside indicated 258 feet below sea level. The heat was oppressive, and the white ground reflected a blinding light. At one place, rounding the base of a hill which shut off the view of the nearby mountains, we found ourselves in the midst of miles of the shining whiteness. It spread in every direction, reaching to the distant Panamints across the valley and to the hazy outline of the low range at the southern end. The hill which we were passing rose into the sky, white as the plain except for a few streaks of ugly, greenish-yellow-like sulphur. No living green thing appeared. The white expanse was unbroken by a bush or even by an outjutting rock. The desolation was complete. An intense silence lay over it. If we dropped far enough behind the wagon not to hear the creaking of its wheels, we felt utterly alone, the only survivors in a dead universe. That day the sky was a hot purplish-blue; no cloud shadows drifting over the valley relieved its blinding monotony. The rose and silver which we had seen from above were gone, not even the illusion of water far off remained. The sun stared steadily down. It was the far-spread, motionless silence of the last days when the whole earth will be dying.
Winding around the hill we came to the ruins of a borax-works. This had been the first plant in the valley, then the Eagle Borax Works south of the ranch was operated, but now the borax comes from the mines in the mountains at Ryan. Nothing was left of the old borax-works except a few roofless stone buildings and the ruins of the works which looked like a row of immense vats embedded in the side of a low ridge. The vats and the ridge had the same sulphurous color, and melted together. Around the buildings the ground was covered with tin cans and broken bottles, but the square of dark-blue shade beside each house was a blessed relief from the burning sun. (LM: I’m assuming this was the Harmony Borax Works, which we now know started operations a few years after the Eagle Borax Works, making Harmony the second borax plant in the valley, not the first. Harmony is still well-preserved, and you can visit it and see a few of the actual carts that were pulled by the twenty mule teams. Eagle is now only a bare patch of ground and a mound of dirt.)
(LM: hold on – we’ve talked about borax so much, and you can still buy this twenty mule team borax today, as I mentioned in Chapter 2. But what even is borax? Well, borax is a hydrate salt of boric acid. It’s basically an alkalizer, used to make things more…basic. If you walk into a supermarket and buy a box of twenty mule team borax, which you can do in most of the US, you’ll be buying a box of white powder that is marketed to be used in the laundry, as an odor neutralizer, or as a water softener. Borax is used in so many different applications besides household cleaners – it’s used in pesticides, preservatives, in labs, in manufacturing, in pharmaceuticals, in other mining activities. You can even use it to make a silly putty type substance in a fun home science experiment. Borax is like a strange, magical, multipurpose fairy dust that may be carcinogenic and may be totally fine, who really knows!)
Beyond the old borax-works the road wound through sand covered with large mesquites and greasewoods. Though the mesquite is called a tree it looks more like an overgrown, thorny shrub. It grows near swamps and dry lakes and is supposed to be a sure indication of water, but its roots go down very deep and it appears in desolations of sand where it would be unwise for the wayfarer to dig. Those mesquites in Death Valley looked very hopeless indeed, sprangling, thorny, leafless things with a hillock of sand blown around the roots of each.
(LM: we were once camping in the Mesquite Spring campground when a woman approached me and asked where the spring was. I said it was over there, by those trees, indicating a messy patch of mesquites. Her face fell. But I looked over there and there’s no water, she said. But there is, I said, it’s just deep underground. Those trees wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t any water. But we drove all the way from LA to see water in the desert, she replied. I gaped. Was this what the Brauers felt like when Edna and Charlotte rolled in to Silver Lake, only there to see the desert? Or was it more novel then, pre-internet search?)
As we descended into the valley and came along the edge of the morass a feeling of deep lassitude and inertia gradually crept over Charlotte and me. It had been very hard to leave the dark squares of shade at the borax-works, and now as we crawled along among the mesquites we felt that the white monotony would go on forever. It pressed upon us like a weight that never, never could be lifted. We stared down at the sand with unseeing eyes and went on because we were in the habit of going on. The ranch was only an imagining, born of vain hope.
And then the strange-looking, tufted tops of some tall palms appeared against the sky. (LM: the grand-palms of these palms look just as unreal today.) They were very striking and we thought they must still be far off or we would have seen them all day, but not a quarter of an hour later we reached the fence which separated the desert from the emerald-green fields. The sudden springing up of the ranch was as unreal as any imagining. The fence was a sharp line of demarcation. On one side the sand drifted up to it, on the other were meadows and big willow trees. It was evening when we arrived, so we camped at once by the irrigation-ditch which made a narrow green ribbon across the sand with grass and trees growing along its banks. We built our fire between an encampment of Indians and the white adobe ranch-buildings beyond the fence. The water rushed down the ditch, clear and cool. How marvelous this running water seemed! How marvelous to dip out all we wanted to wash ourselves and our clothes and our dishes!
(LM: what follows is a racist passage about the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe members that EBP and Charlotte encountered at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Sure, you can say that Edna and Charlotte were probably crabby from dehydration and were working off the cultural mores of the time, but I don’t actually want to read some of this stuff and put it out into the world in my voice, because it for sure isn’t cool now and it wasn’t cool then, which I hope they would have realized if they had thought about it for a half-second. And this is my project, damn it, so I’ve decided to edit all the racist stuff out and then we’ll have a little talk about the rest.)
Our felicity, however, was short-lived. (LM: deletion) The Panamint Indians, in common probably with all Indians, do not count cleanliness among their virtues. The rising of the fierce, hot sun brought millions of flies which converted our dishes and camp equipment into black masses that crawled. (LM: deletion) Between the Indians and the large herd of cattle at the ranch, camping by the irrigation-ditch was impossible. We spent most of the forenoon moving a mile or two away among the mesquites. We were on the gradually sloping ground which leads up from the valley-floor to the rock-walls of the Funeral Mountains. Here in the valley we found that our impression from the Keane Wonder Mine of mountains rising precipitously from the flat white floor had been an illusion. The characteristic mesa of the Mojave curves up on both sides, sandy, covered with stones, but often entirely bare of vegetation. Death Valley is always full of such illusions. Even afterwards, when we knew better, we could never look down into the valley from a height without feeling that the mountains rose precipitously out of it. That camp among the mesquites blazed. The yellow sand seemed to smite our eyes. Across the valley under the edge of the Panamints the mesa looked a beautiful dark-blue, but around us was an even greater ecstasy of light than we had known at Keane Wonder. Everything blazed, the sand, the slow waves of the heat shimmer, the little rounded stony hills between us and the Funeral Mountains, and the steel-blue battlements of the mountains themselves.
The Indians at the ranch are employed as laborers, (LM: deletion) when they will work. The superintendent, a vigorous, silent Scotchman, was extremely pessimistic about them. While we were there they had “the flu” and all we ever saw them do was sit around the corral waiting for supplies to be handed out. The women and girls, with heavy melancholy faces, gathered and stared at us. (LM: deletion) They stared with the stolid curiosity of cattle, not like burros who twitch their ears saucily, though they have the burro’s reputation for thievishness. The superintendent kept everything under lock and key. The only Indian who showed a sign of life was an old fellow who prowled around with a gun after the birds and wild ducks that make the ranch a resting-place in their flights across the desert. We were told that there was only one gun in the whole encampment and that the younger men hunted with bows and arrows. (LM: deletion) Most of them looked stunted and their faces were wrinkled like the skins of shrunken, dried-up apples, as though the valley were taking toll of the generations of their race.
The valley takes its toll. Most white men cannot live there long. The vigorous Scotchman had been at the ranch eight years and thought he could remain, but no one else had ever stayed such a length of time, and he had difficulty in finding anybody to keep him company for more than a few months. He told us that no white woman can stand it at all in summer. As Charlotte and I were almost prostrated even in early March, we are willing to accept the statement. Nothing that anyone can tell us of the evil effects of living in the valley is beyond our imaginations. At times the thermometer goes up to 130 degrees, but there is something worse than the heat. The Worrier claimed that 130 degrees was not uncommon in Silver Lake, and that he spent his summers there without suffering as people do in the valley. The mercury never rose above 98 degrees while we were at the ranch, a temperature by no means unknown in eastern summers, yet our feeling of lassitude increased daily, combined with a faintness and giddiness that we could hardly combat. The blazing light had much to do with it, and we were below sea-level. A learned, scientific man has since told us that so small a drop in elevation could not be noticeable. Those old-timers who went insane on the hot sands knew that it was noticeable. You feel that if you were to go out into that blazing silence you could easily go insane, or succumb to the deadly inertia which paralyzed Charlotte and me. Too easily you could lie down in the thin, delusive shade of some little bush and forget. Even beneath the willow trees beside the flowing water we could scarcely move, our minds were dazed so we could neither read nor think. We understood “Old Johnnie’s” feeling about the valley. Something hostile lives there.
(LM: Um…Edna, did you not literally not just read your own words about your experience and compare them to your racist impressions of the native people in your last two paragraphs? Let’s be clear – you’re saying that white men can’t last longer than a few months or a year in the valley, other than this magical Scotchman, and white women can’t make it through a single season. And you’re shitting all over the natives for not wanting to quote, “work” in these conditions and for looking a little rough around the edges?
Before white men took over their land and quote, “employed” them as laborers, the Timbisha Shoshone were a nomadic tribe. They moved from the valley floor to the higher points in the Panamint Range in the summer to escape the heat, to hunt, and harvest pinon pine nuts, roots, and berries. They only lived in the valley in the winter.
The Timbisha Shoshone had lived in Death Valley for more than a thousand of years. You and Charlotte and the Scotchman, you were from somewhere else. You had that “somewhere else” always in your mind, always there to return to. But this was the Timbisha Shoshone’s HOME. They had nowhere else to hold in their mind to return to. Can you imagine that?
Not until the year 2000 would the Timbisha Shoshone gain ownership of 7,500 acres of their ancestral homeland in and around Death Valley NP from the federal government.
Here they were, literally waiting for someone who quote, “employed” them, to give them food, because they were prevented from getting food in their traditional ways. The old “active Indian” – he’s just trying to get some protein for his family, independent of what they were given by their employer; he was trying to maintain some sense of autonomy.
Honestly, this passage made me almost not want to read this book. But, in the end, I thought it was on the whole a good story and that this part, the worst part, offered an interesting perspective on how a person who was considered enlightened at the time could still have such gaping holes in their humanity. BTW, I’m not touching Mark Twain with a ten foot pole.
Back to Edna’s story.)
The ghastly, shining swamp and the pools of poisonous water are horrible to the imagination because of their unnaturalness in the midst of such choking thirst. Only the perverted brain of a demon could have invented such a monstrosity. Water is in your thoughts all the time. From morning until night you are thirsty in the dry heat, and you look out over the shimmering miles and know that, though there is water here and there, if you leave the irrigation-ditch you cannot quench your thirst. You cling to the narrow green line where the mountain-water flows down. The feeling grows on you that you are visiting some sinister world which can be no part of your beloved earth.
And then night comes. A miracle happens and you know this is the same outdoors you love, only its trappings are put off, it is stripped of obscuring verdure, naked, and you find it more terrible than you thought it could be and more beautiful than you thought it could be. The rising and the setting of that cruel sun are great splendors, that dark night sky is bigger and deeper than in kinder countries. The stars are very near, floating in a sea so deep it reaches to infinity; they are twice as big as ordinary stars, they look like silver balls. The sky is a deep, dark blue. The whole valley is blue in the night and luminous like a sapphire. The going-down of the sun is a pageant; its uprising is a triumph. You feel as though you ought to clash cymbals, you feel as though you ought to dance and sing when the sun looks over the mountains. You have been remiss in worship all your life because you have not learned to dance and sing in honor of the rising sun. The sun-god was worshiped on the desert for there the sun is a cruel, great god. His glory consumes the earth, but he is so absorbed in rejoicing in his glory that he does not know it.
One night we camped a little way up the canyon behind the ranch in the vain hope of finding a cooler spot. The canyon entered the mountain beside a precipitous, jagged cliff made of crumbling yellow rock, so steep that we could scarcely climb its sides. We attempted it late in the afternoon in the hope of getting a view of the whole valley at sunset, but its knife-edge ridges were so sharp and crumbling and our endurance so slight after the burning day that we could not reach a satisfactory summit. Being shut up in a canyon was no part of our plan and we made the Worrier help us lug our beds quite a way from camp to the top of a little hill overlooking at least part of the valley.
“Why don’t you take them to the top of that there peak?” he inquired sarcastically, pointing at one of the steel-blue crests of the Funeral Range. We could not help it if he scoffed, we had to see the drama of the coming of night. Panting from these exertions added to our fruitless effort to climb the cliff, we brought up a canteen and the few things we needed and bade him go back and sleep happily under the wagon.
We ourselves had very little sleep on the hilltop for the drama was too stupendous. Slowly the mountains turned blue, and then bluer. Their beautiful skyline was drawn with a pencil that left a golden, luminous mark. Pale blue crept into the valley, indigo lay in pools among the foothills. The whole night was a succession of studies in blue like the blue nights some artists paint, but every shade of blue that an artist could mix on his palette was there. Layers of different blues lay one above another, and changed, and mingled. The enormous stars came out and hung in the sky like great lamps. The sapphire valley glistened beneath them. The lamps swung slowly toward the west and then were gradually extinguished. The sapphire turned into a moonstone, palely glimmering, and then into an opal full of flashing fires. The cruel, great god was coming. He came, and (LM: can’t read it, too cringey!) we were two tongue-tied fools longing to celebrate him and only standing mute and bewildered.
We always felt that longing and that bewilderment during the evenings and nights and mornings in the White Heart. They overwhelmed us and hurt us. We were like prisoners shut in by the walls of ourselves, unable to break through and be one with such beauty. We could not rest in it as we had rested for long minutes by the red promontory where we first saw the valley; there was too much beauty. We clutched at each changing, evanescent moment, spectators watching through tiny loopholes in the walls a pageant which passed too quickly and was too big for our understanding.
The White Heart exceeds the imagination every way. It is too terrible and too splendid. It asserts itself tremendously; the green patch of the ranch lying on the baked sand beside the shining swamp seems more ephemeral and unimportant than any of man’s efforts to tame the desert; it is an unreality, a dream, and the dwellers on it are shadows in a dream. The majesty of the valley completely overshadows the row of tall palms against the background of the snowy Panamints, and the little oasis of alfalfa-fields, willow-trees, and white ranch-buildings blessed with shade. They might vanish like a mirage and never be missed. The magnificent procession of the nights and days passes over the white terror, more magnificent than other nights and days precisely because of the glowing of that terrible sand and those terrible mountains, perfect for its own sake, and utterly indifferent whether or not eyes and hearts can endure it.
That’s the end of chapter six. We’ll post chapters seven and eight in a couple weeks. Subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcasting app so that you don’t miss a chapter. If you have something you’d like to add to the story, email us at info(at)roadtrippinginamerica.com.
Thanks for listening!